ANIMALS : This Vet's Pet Project Is Acupuncture

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For Norton, acupuncture is no big deal. It's just another part of his day, like sniffing strangers and running around the yard.

In fact, the chocolate Labrador retriever looked a little bored as his owner, Venice veterinarian Marc Bittan, inserted five stainless steel needles--each only slightly longer than a sewing needle--into the dog's hindquarters.

From all appearances, Norton could just as well have been thinking about his supper while his human companion explained the principles of animal acupuncture.

"Not only does (acupuncture) cause no discomfort; most dogs actually get sedated," said Bittan, who makes house calls in a mobile unit. He said he has used acupuncture on about 100 Westside animals in the past year.

Bittan said the procedure has proven effective on dogs he has treated for skeletal or stomach problems, and can be practiced on virtually any animal for a wide variety of ailments or health maintenance.

Norton, for instance, was not sick, but got what Bittan called "a tune-up, a feel-good shot."

Pet acupuncture is part of a larger trend toward holistic veterinary medicine, which includes using herbs and other non-traditional approaches to the treatment of disease.

There are about 300 veterinary acupuncturists nationwide, and the number is growing by about 15% a year, according to the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society.

Some veterinarians have turned to acupuncture out of a frustration with traditional medications.

According to traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture works by stimulating and balancing chi , a life force that gathers around certain points on the body and has no analog in Western medicine.

"I felt that in some cases in treating animals, Western medicine was sometimes overwhelming," said Dr. Bill Farber, a West Los Angeles veterinarian who also incorporates acupuncture into about 10% of his practice. "The constant use of antibiotics and steroids is immuno-suppressive and possibly detrimental to an animal's internal organs. Sometimes the Eastern approach is just as effective."

While some U.S. veterinarians have practiced alternative medicine since at least the 1970s, the current trend dovetails with a growing interest in holistic medicine for human beings.

Bittan, for instance, said he became interested in acupuncture after his ex-wife earned a doctorate in homeopathy and began studying traditional Chinese medicine. He said he soon received acupuncture treatments for a sore throat and was surprised to discover he felt better afterward.

"I swallowed hard, trying to make my throat hurt, because I couldn't believe it went away that fast," he said. "I was skeptical, but seeing is believing."

Pet owners have been similarly impressed with results on animals. Marlas Winston, owner of a Santa Monica health-food store, was worried when her 14-year-old golden retriever, Shana, began having trouble getting up and climbing stairs.

Winston said she became disenchanted with conventional veterinary medicine after one doctor suggested giving the dog steroids "until she dies."

But since starting weekly visits to Farber several years ago, Shana has been a different dog, Winston said.

"Acupuncture has kept (Shana) alive," she said. "If she didn't have acupuncture, she couldn't even lift her body. It's worked wonders."

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The orthodox veterinary community, not surprisingly, is taking a more guarded approach.

The American Veterinary Medical Assn., in its policy statement on alternative therapies, recognizes acupuncture as a valid form of treatment but warns that "the potential for abuse exists. These techniques should be regarded as surgical or medical procedures under state veterinary practice acts."

"We've heard (acupuncture) has been successful in some cases; in others it's not," said Madeline Bernstein, executive director of the Los Angeles Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals/Southern California Humane Society, a private, non-profit group. "Our position is that it's important to do research on the person performing the procedure (and) make sure they have the proper experience."

To Bittan, though, doubts about acupuncture reveal a blind spot.

"Look at this," he said, holding up a package of needles emblazoned with a sticker warning that the contents were an "investigational device" regulated by federal law.

"I mean, come on," he said, giving Norton a pat on the head. "Acupuncture has been practiced for thousands of years. It tells you something about the arrogance of our society."

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